It is the way managers deal with employee complaints - rather than the subject of the complaints - that can trigger workers to launch legal claims, according to Hicksons workplace relations practice manager, Brad Swebeck.
Statistics indicate some 24 per cent of workers will launch action for discrimination, harassment and bullying in the next financial year, he told a briefing last week.
Because what constitutes bullying is not always clear, employers should keep in mind the potential "spectrum" of behaviour that can result in a complaint, from subtle (such as excluding someone from a conversation) to extreme (verbal or physical assault), he says.
In some cases, an employee's perceptions of hostility might be sufficient to trigger a claim, so employers must be sure to take all complaints seriously, he says.
Stewart Cameron, also from Hicksons, says the proportion of claims relating to interpersonal conflicts - as opposed to more straightforward injuries such as post-traumatic stress - is on the rise.
"It really is an OHS issue and it is appropriate to manage [the risks] from an OHS perspective." Identifying the cause of a psychological injury, and collecting evidence at the "coal face" is extremely important, he says.
Employers should document requests for time off to deal with "personal issues" because they could be valuable evidence of the true cause of a problem down the track. If the only history a doctor is given relates to bullying at work, they are likely to accept it as the main cause of a psychological problem, Cameron says.
He adds that employers must be "vigilant" when a worker's performance is deteriorating, and they shouldn't avoid talking to an employee about their problems. Do it with empathy, he says, but if necessary commence the company's disciplinary process.
Where all HR processes are clearly documented and can be assembled quickly, and appropriate witnesses are readily identified, there is a greater likelihood of resolving a claim quickly and at lower cost, he says.
Inaction can be negligence
The pitfalls of weak policies and inadequate implementation are illustrated in a 2009 judgment involving the alleged harassment of a KFC employee, Swebeck says.